Four Global Truths for Trump

By Daniel DePetris

After a savage, rude, and nasty campaign—that reminded the public yet again why they are so often apathetic about politics—the American people finally chose their 45th President. President-Elect Donald Trump's blockbuster showing on Election Day is over, and now it’s time to get to work.  

Although we still don't know who Donald Trump will appoint to be his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or National Security Adviser, the direction that U.S. national security policy takes over the next four years will help determine whether the United States gets stuck with problems that it cannot solve or steers clear of making ambitious commitments that it cannot keep.

Here are three concepts President Trump should keep in mind as he fills out his staff and prepares for the weighty responsibility of taking over the nation's foreign policy machinery:

1) Don't do too much: As the world's remaining superpower, there is a natural inclination for presidents of both parties to bite off more than they can chew. Due in part to the fact that the U.S. is surrounded by friendly countries and doesn't have to worry about protecting itself from a hostile invasion force, Washington has the freedom of movement, resources, and flexibility to extend its power overseas in ways that other countries – such as Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan - cannot.  

Unfortunately, the previous quarter-century has shown time and again that extension can quickly lead to overextension. Missions and objectives that are originally narrow and perceived to be straightforward, quickly turn into the mission-creep that the American people reject. A military campaign sold as a straightforward and relatively simple regime change operation in Iraq or civilian protection mission in Libya 2011 can morph into a troop-heavy and resource intensive operation, or even an endless occupation. U.S. military forces engaged in one theater of war, like Afghanistan, are then forced to plan for and implement another military operation thousands of miles away.

The result is often the same: Too many national security priorities become under-resourced, and the country's attention diverts from other regions that are more strategically important to the United States.  

2) Always use force as a last resort: Notwithstanding the hated budget sequester, the U.S. military remains above and beyond those fielded by its allies and adversaries -- and it’s not even close. U.S. soldiers, sailors, airman, and marines are the world's most dedicated, innovative, knowledgeable, and professional military personnel on the face of the earth, and there will certainly be times when the only option left available to prevent a direct national security threat to the country is by deploying these men and women into harms way.

"Force only as a last resort" has become a catchphrase on the campaign trail, but the mantra should be elevated to a core tenant of American foreign policy.

As a powerful country with enormous economic might, the U.S. possesses the capability to leverage diplomacy during international crises more effectively than most. And in many cases, a diplomatic resolution can be much more productive than any use of force. The Syrian regime, for instance, was compelled to turn over far more of its declared chemical weapons stockpile as a result of a diplomatic agreement than the amount that would have been destroyed through U.S. airstrikes.

Instead of bombing the Iranian nuclear program and delaying Tehran’s progress for several years, the combination of multilateral diplomacy and America’s influence over the international financial system forced Iran to cap its nuclear activity for 15 years — a far better result for the U.S. than the alternative scenarios of preparing for an Iranian nuclear weapon or instigating a potentially catastrophic ground war with a regional power.  One can certainly argue that the strength of the deal on its merits is too lax on the Iranians in some respects; Tehran is permitted to continue researching more advanced centrifuge designs, and a large bulk of the restrictions expire after 10-15 years.  Yet a decade is still a longer period of time than the two or three years of that a U.S. military operation would likely produce.

3) Don't get too involved in the fights of other nations: The U.S. has a long list of allies and friends around the world.  But the more friends a country happens to have, the greater the likelihood that those friends will approach that country and ask for help. Saudi Arabia, Estonia, Japan and Poland have many differences, but they happen to have two things in common: they are all allies of Washington and have all repeatedly requested U.S. assistance in some form or another to boost their regional positions in relation to their rivals.

President Trump must also realize the U.S. is not best served by picking winners and losers on any side of the Middle East's sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divide. Doing so will only add more fuel to the war and provide an incentive for parties waging war to continue to extract concessions through violence rather than at the negotiating table.  After all, it defies rational behavior to believe that a state will choose negotiation with its enemies if it believes it is assured of American military support regardless of their behavior.

If a Trump administration keeps these lessons in the back of its mind, the U.S. will be more likely to steer clear of careless, strategically dubious interventions. It's time for a cleared-eyed foreign policy that works for Americans.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by Breaking Defense on November 28, 2016. Read more HERE